Ross Thorby: Cruising on land

I guess you can take the boy out of Northland, but you can never fully take Northland out of the boy.

I was awoken at dawn by the sun streaming through the windows of Car-lotta. The crash of the surf breaking on the beach just a few meters from my door was all the encouragement that I needed to see how my speedos were fitting after COVID lockdown 2 - not very well to tell the truth.

Pushing my embarrassment to one side, I donned said speedos nonetheless and joined the early morning swimmers who were splashing their way across the calm waters of Paihia and realised how relaxed I felt away from the rush of the Auckland traffic and lifestyle. Here, I seem to have organically morphed back into my natural state - a Northlander. Having forsaken my usual Auckland attire, I now only seem to be wearing Hawaiian shirts and shorts and the last time that I had a shave or worn shoes, was the day I left Auckland.

I guess you can take the boy out of Northland, but you can never fully take Northland out of the boy. I usually feel this relaxed after a week on a ship, here I have felt it within a few days.

As the sun rose across the Bay, my convoy of friends in their own campers, began to arrive and assemble at the cafe over the road from the surf. I barely had time to don a lava lava and brush off the sand, before we met to sort out our route for today’s short drive to Matauri Bay. While it is only 30 kilometres north, it would take 2 1/2 hours by the time we had meandered through hills and dales and stopped for photos with a side trip down to Kerikeri and its historic Stone Store - NZ's oldest stone building.

Once the bastion of orange groves and retired army majors, we find Kerikeri is now full of ex-Aucklanders, hobby farms and a myriad of choices for cafes and muffins. Even the old Mission house - NZ's oldest building set behind the Stone Store, has been converted into a cafe, with diners sitting below a canopy of grapevine while they sip their lattes and double soy mocha expressos, above the meandering river and gentle waterfall.

The landscape and road from here slowly gives way from undulating remains of orchards to rolling grazing fields and vistas of the coast and ocean beyond. At the top of the hill and entrance to Matauri Bay is a magnificent view of the abundant fishing grounds that signal the entrance to Whangaroa county.

It was here that Reverend Samuel Marsden first met with Hongi Hika, before traveling south to the Bay of Islands to establish NZ’s first Mission Station and here also, that the serene coastline hides part of NZ’s more recent and explosive history.

Many of us Aucklanders remember 10 July 1985, when a Greenpeace ship was bombed in Auckland harbour by French saboteurs. The boom of the underwater explosion reverberating through our consciousness and exploding our naive belief that our isolation offered us immunity to international terrorism and the darker political forces that we could not appreciate at the time.

I had an apartment overlooking the harbour in those days and the next morning,was confronted by the wreck of the vessel visible from my window, a sight that permanently awakened in me, a hitherto unacknowledged appreciation of what Greenpeace was trying to achieve.

After her demise, she was brought up to Matauri Bay and scuttled just off Motukawanui Island – the largest island of the Cavalli group and now serves as a marine reserve and popular diving attraction. There is a memorial at the top of the hill at the end of the camping ground and a brass arrow points towards her position where she slowly dissolves, providing peace and sanctuary to the very marine mammals and fish that in life, the ship was hoping to save.

After we set up our vans on the waterfront, we opted for a swim, the women prepared cocktails and nibbles - for we men had more important things to worry about as a BBQ meant fire and, that is mens’ work.

My job for some reason was dessert. Fortunately I had started on a pav the day before - it’s amazing what you can make in a Campervan oven given some Nina Simone music and a whisk.

As another glorious Northland sun set, I had no idea why it took a pandemic for me to rediscover New Zealand’s beautiful coastline and give me appreciation of how lucky we are to be living here in Godzone. (Ross Thorby)

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